The city that wanted to know

Pre-1947 Lahore, rich in writers, poets and pluralism, pushed at the boundaries of knowledge

Written by Khaled Ahmed | Published: June 3, 2017 1:25 am
lahore, lahore pakistan, islamic college, Lahore Government College University Identities in Lahore remained firmly separate while restrained by secular governance. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

On May 10, the Lahore Government College University held a symposium on Lahore; a particular topic, “Cultural Pluralism under the British”, focused my mind. Was there cultural pluralism among the inhabitants of Lahore before 1947? There is no doubt that Lahore was a culturally rich city, where writers of Urdu literature walked the streets chanting great poetry — but was the city united under one cultural identity?

In the 1941 census, Lahore had a population of 6,71,659 which became 7,00,000 by 1947, containing 64.5 per cent Muslims, 30 per cent Hindus, 5 per cent Sikhs as well as a small Christian community. If you look at the central parts of the city where the well-heeled lived, a majority Hindu community controlled most of the bazaar economy — in the famous street, Anarkali Bazaar, there being only one shop owned by a Muslim — and dominated the legal and medical professions. The voters of Punjab were united behind the Unionist Party where tribal identity — Jats and Rajputs — rather than religion dominated. The British administration liked that because the Unionists looked like secular people helping to banish the communal politics of the Muslim League and the Congress from Punjab and rejecting Partition.

But Khushwant Singh, sent by his rich father in Delhi to start a lawyer’s career in Lahore, noted that the Unionists didn’t really integrate culturally. They were united by one cultural factor, the Punjabi language, while divided by its two different scripts containing mystical verse that all Unionists could relate to. The religious lot was there too, and was deeply divided. The RSS held drills in posh Model Town; the tough Islamic schools of the Deobandi and Wahabi brands flourished in the inner city.

The Unionists didn’t mix socially. The Islamia College took Muslims boys and the Government College (established in 1864) took all comers on merit, which meant that for the early decades, it had only non-Muslim and Hindu boys. But the deputy commissioners saw to it that all religious identities were treated equally — that made Lahore the dream city still arousing nostalgia among the Hindus who finally quit when the riots started. Khushwant loved his sojourn in Lahore and talked of his co-religionists mostly with great affection. The only exception was the brilliant Muslim lawyer, Manzur Qadir, whom he admired for his humanity more than any other Lahori he knew — which must go down as the only real “pluralism” under the British in his life.

Khushwant talks about “floaters”, communists and atheist-socialists who crashed identity camps under British secularist governance. He writes about a bachelor Christian ICS officer, Mangat Rai — his wife was to become the famous principal of Lahore’s Kinnaird College for Women after Partition — who called on his bicycle, drank his wine and flirted with Mrs Singh. There was Justice Gopal Das Khosla, also of the ICS — “he was taken with my wife; I with his. So we were on the level” — but this was typically Khushwant Singh, a deviant from familiar Indian pieties.

Identities in Lahore remained firmly separate while restrained by secular governance. The city’s denizens had to make decisions under duress when the Hindu-Muslim riots erupted across India. The boundaries of identity that were not crossed created physical boundaries later on, across which two nationalisms flung their false propaganda.

Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, a Hungarian Jew and the founder of the Government College, Lahore, was devoted to the European Enlightenment and founded the Government College near the river Ravi, without letting on that he was inserting an idea of education alien to Muslims, one which could only take hold in Europe after the demise of the Church. He called his idea of education ulum-e-mufidah (useful education) after writing his great book on Muslim schools called madrasas that provided no employment. He made “courage to know” the motto of the college, without telling anyone its real meaning — perhaps knowing that the Muslims who dominated in Lahore wouldn’t take to it. The idea of education that this slogan promoted was born in Europe only after the demise of religion.

Speaking in a debate in 2004, celebrating 140 years of Government College Lahore (now University), the ex-governor of Sindh, and an Old Ravian, Kamal Azfar, informed the audience that the motto of GC — “courage to know” — was borrowed from the Roman poet Horace by the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) as the motto of the Age of Enlightenment: sapere aude.

No mention is made of the motto in H.L.O. Garret’s 1914 history of the Government College Lahore. Nor is it explained in the 1964 history of the Government College by Professor Abdul Hamid. But an Old Ravian poet, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, ended up giving us the most apt translation of the motto in a poem: jur’at-e-tehqeeq (the guts to investigate).

Did Faiz know about Kant? The truth is that he cut pretty close to what Kant had intended. And Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1987) was in jail off and on for nearly half a decade in the early days of Pakistan.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’

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